Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The dog

An insistent noise enters the barrier of my sleep, repetitive and all too familiar. “Not again”, I mumble, as I hear paws scratching on the bedroom door. Well, not exactly scratching; ripping into pieces would be more appropriate.

I hate this dog.

When we stay in bed for too long, it panics. My husband thinks it’s because it’s been abandoned in the past. When the dog realises it is alone, it seeks for traces of us within the house, and afterwards everything is upside down. Even now, it is about to attack the heavy, expensive wooden door of our bedroom. And as usual, my beloved is asleep. He would sleep through the scratches, the whining, the barks. He used to sleep through the babies’ cries, too.

Did you know that a baby can scream as loud as a plane taking off? Well, our babies did.

But that’s not the point of my story. We have lost the silence of our Saturday morning and the animal is prone on destruction, so I decide to get up. I put my slippers on and grab my shawl from the chair. Marc grumbles slightly. I am so tempted to let the dog in right now. It would jump on the bed on Marc’s side, as thrilled as if it had won the lottery. There’s no reason why he should sleep while I can’t, after all. It is his dog. But Marc wouldn’t even mind. He would talk to the dog (“you were afraid, weren’t you, you were afraid without me”), then I would say something, and he would ask for my indulgence. “God knows which kind of treatment he has received in the past”, or something of the kind. My husband does refer to the dog as a “he”, by the way.


Thursday, August 21, 2008

Texts from July II

What is the reason we experience scary things?

As a small girl, on the years before I went to school, and even some time after that, it never occurred to me to be afraid of the dark. I wasn’t afraid of mice either, or bees, spiders or high places. After all, I was a child who knew about things and it was perfectly clear for me that such things couldn’t hurt you. Come to think about it, I wasn’t even afraid of nightmares. Because each time I was having a dream, I was perfectly well aware that it was just a dream.

In one of those dreams, I was walking in a gloomy forest with some other children from the kindergarten. As I saw the other children getting scared, I tried to convince them there was no reason to be scared, because it was only a dream. That was perfectly clear to me, though I don’t remember if the other children in my dream believed me. Such things seem to be hard to prove... In any case, as I then finally opened my eyes, all the other children were gone, so there was no-one left to say “I told you so”.

My real nightmares were of totally different character.


One of them sort of had to do with making friends. When I was five years old or so, I got acquainted with a girl from the same neighbourhood. Even before that I had spent time with some other children, but mainly to avoid any worse consequences. With Anna, we used to go swinging for hours. She was okay, although there was one thing that puzzled me. It seems she once stole one of my beautiful blue hairpins, which sort of came between us, because I never really could prove that she had taken them. Eventually I even doubted it myself, for it was after all only my word against hers. I tried to be as if nothing had happened, but after this, it never really felt the same. Still for outsiders, she could pass as a friend. This meant that making acquaintance with her was one important step on the road to perceived normality.

Once Anna and I got an idea to go selling hand-picked buckets of wild flowers to all the people living in our courtyard. The people weren’t too impressed, so it took a bit more time than expected and we wondered quite a bit away from my home. She didn’t seem to mind and I also pretended I didn’t. All the time I was trying to ignore a slight warning somewhere in the back of my mind, that my Mum wouldn’t be so happy about me being late. That I had gone beyond the home area, was also not exactly a positive thing. Maybe my Mum would never find out that part, but I couldn’t leave out of my calculations that she would.

However, for a good while, I managed to push away those thoughts to the back of my head, saying to myself that preserving good relations with my friend was an important thing in life. Up until the moment came that we had to part, and she started heading towards her place, where she would have dinner with her family.

I went to sit on a small rock on the edge of a forest near my home. I looked at my house from further away and started calmly to weigh my alternatives. I knew a family close by and they were quite nice to me, but my Mum would eventually find out I was there, and that would just make matters worse. The forest itself was too small to hide into and additionally it was only May and I didn’t have any extra clothes or food with me. Few days would be possible, but at some point I would have to come out of there. Even though it was spring and not any more so cold at night, I just had to be realistic. After some thinking, I came to the conclusion that being only five years old, I could not survive without my home in the long run.

So I had no other choice but to go behind our front door and ring the bell, no matter what would happen. I was whispering desperately: please, let not nothing bad happen to me, let it pass at least for this time. After a few seconds my Mum opened the door, and looked exactly like I thought she would. It's hard to describe her expression, though I still saw the same face twenty years later in my dreams. But to my surprise, she didn’t say anything else except “so you came late” in a strangled voice. After some seconds still, I thought it okay to sneak into my room, where I hid for the rest of the day and read one of my countless books. I knew that by next morning, the whole thing would seem much milder, and if I was as quiet as possible for a while, my Mum might not bring up the topic more than once or twice after that. Though of course I knew she would not forget.


One evening around the same time I was waiting in my bed in the evening for my Mum to come and say me goodnight. We had this goodnight-poem which had seven different parts, and it ended with “see pictures of the princess”. I was begging her countless times and always she told me she would come soon. Finally I lost my patience and crept behind the bathroom door, where she was doing laundry.

"Can’t you just learn to live with a simple 'good night'", she asked.

“But I can’t fall asleep if you don’t say the whole thing”, I tried to explain with tears in my voice.

After a while she did recite the whole poem through the bathroom door. Except for the last bit, the one with the princess. I started to beg desperately for the last verse. Suddenly she yelled: "This is the last time I will say more than 'good night' to you!"

Having heard that, I simply paralyzed. All the time she had been behind the door and the door had remained locked. After this I knew there was no point to fight. This door would never open again. I remember that I cried in my bed for hours before going to sleep. She was maybe still inside the bathroom or maybe elsewhere. It didn't matter, since I knew I didn’t have to do anything else except just to be, to stay in my room and not make any special effort, and she would seize to exist. I had learned long before that to anticipate the moments when I absolutely would need her, so that I could save energy to fight for her being there at those moments.

Thinking about this now, I must ask myself why I bothered to cry. After all, I could be very realistic and had a habit of acting rationally, so I must also have known she would never come no matter how long I cried. I can't be absolutely sure, but I guess somewhere very deep inside me I thought it must be enough, not to do anything but to cry. Though it took a further twenty-one years before I learned that it indeed was so. By that time, of course crying could appear in many other forms, such as philosophy, psychology, ambition and a desperate search for love.


When I was around ten, the nightmares moved from my home to my classroom.

I always had the same strategy. To turn as colourless as possible till the storm calmed down a bit, to act like I didn’t care, to make myself believe I didn’t hear, and to wait for the next morning to come, which would make the whole thing seem smaller. And for the next morning, and the one after that. Until different kind of worries would step along.


As a teenager, the nightmare was my eyes. My contact lenses were difficult to use, easy to drop and made my eyes sore, but those times, they were the only thing that guarded me from the horrors of the world. The times that I happened to drop one of them, I made some of the most desperate prayers I remember. For years I avoided looking my Mum in the eyes, so that she wouldn’t see how my eyes looked like. I knew that if she knew I was so dependent on one thing, she would force me to give it up. In her logics, being dependent on something must be bad for you.

But at that point, I didn't exactly listen to her advice for living my life. There was no way of trusting someone whose life was so empty of feelings that she didn't even notice when she was treading on those of others.


Some years after that, my nightmares started to become more complex. It was unpleasant for me to stay in the dark, so I would rather not do that. I hated spiders, so I chose to leave the room if I saw any. I could go to the university lessons when I wanted to, and I didn’t need to see my Mum too often. All in all, I had managed to climb the ladders of normality surprisingly well. There were a few times I sort of wondered off from my courtyard with someone, at least partly for the reasons of appearing normal. But from such journeys you eventually need to come back, and the further you go, the more difficult it is to come back.


During these years, it happened a couple of times that I met someone who actually seemed real. But even then, it wouldn’t take long before some small thing happened that brought the nightmare back. Again, my strategy was the same: to act like I didn’t care, to make myself believe I didn’t care, to go back to my own little room, and to wait for the next year to come. And the next, and the one after that, and the one after that.


Somewhere along these long long years in between – I guess the nightmares just became nightmares. In many of those dreams there was someone big and terrifying who had enormous powers, like a witch. First I always first tried to be calm my fear and calmly negotiate with her. I first succeeded, at least up to a point, but in the end I started losing my strength of will. I always woke up just in time, and in one breath went through all the prayers I knew, until I finally more or less managed to convince myself that it was only a dream.

But, in a time when I for some reason had managed to empty my life of all things that somehow resembled life, the truth was that I was fascinated by those dreams, for they were one of the few things that made me feel something.

I think that's a point which is important to remember.


In those times, I started to hear rumours of one of my cousins.

I had lost contact with her a long time ago, regardless of the fact that she was one of the only people who were real to me when I was a child. Those times, she had prettier hair than mine, a princess-like Swedish accent and the ability to make funny jokes, but she was always the one who was afraid of spiders, bees and the nightly silence of our grandparents' country house. But I guess at some point in our teenage years some small thing had happened which offended me, and I started to act like I didn’t care. It was easy, because she lived far away and we both had then a lot of other things to think about.

The rumours said everything was not alright with her. She had started a schooling, one after another, but then always soon quit, and locked herself inside her house. After a while, they said, she had even troubles going out of there, as every time she went outside, she would go into a panic.

I hadn’t seen her in many years, and I knew nothing about the details, but when people talked about her, I stayed quiet. Her nightmares were not foreign to me. People thought of course, that I was the one who would do well in life, and that for some strange reason, my cousin just didn’t know how. However deep down I knew there was no big difference between quitting schools and quitting people you cared for. Only difference was that the latter you could hide and pretend that you were perfectly sane and normal.

As long as nobody knew that you did care.


But maybe the worst nightmare of all came one day when I looked back at my life and I realised I had carefully followed the strategies of my mother. I didn’t know if I was awake or sleeping, but it didn’t matter. Thinking logically, it meant I would also be leading my future children to take the same path as me. Ironic, since the only thing I really had wanted to do in my life was to prevent that.

Of course putting all things together, in the end this was also a kind of nightmare only I knew about. Looking from the outside, my life looked totally different from my mother’s. After all, she knew nothing about philosophy, psychology, or ambition. In my opinion, not so much about love either. However, this made me puzzled.

All these years and all those nightmares, I never really expected that things could be different.


Until one sunny August morning when I was twenty-six, he finally came into my life.

Thinking of my past, all the stories, histories, philosophical and mystical theories of my culture I had grown a part of, everything I had learnt, all the paths I had taken which never really ended up anywhere, it never had even crossed my mind that I might one day find what I was looking for. And when I did, nothing could be more simple. He was not one bit mystical. At the moment that I decided to follow his path instead of my Mum’s, I still had no idea what he was really like, though he knew who I was. For a few weeks I was in a safe place where nothing could touch me. And it was a place where I wanted to take all my friends with me. But that was not what he wanted to give me.

In those weeks, it happened one evening when I was working at a grocery store nearby, that I got a visitor. Suddenly I just knew it was he who was there. I had to stand behind the counter so I had nowhere to hide. Each time a customer came in, my blush got deeper and I realised he saw the whole thing, he saw my embarrassment, he knew all the very human feelings I had in me, and he just stayed. I couldn’t help smiling, and the people looked happy and smiled back at me, but after a while I just couldn’t take it anymore, I murmured: “I’m sorry” and rushed to the back room.


Then very soon, all my nightmares started somehow coming back to me, one by one. I found the present and the past ones, and some nightmares of my friends and family too. I was overflooded with them, until I was so surrounded that I couldn’t look away any more. Then I had no other choice but to start to find my way out of the mess.

I can’t understand how, but after making acquaintance again with all the nightmares I have ever known, there have been moments that the life itself starts to fascinate me more than my dreams. And I guess somewhere deep down I know they are only nightmares.


So what is the reason we experience scary things? I’m still not totally sure. But for me personally, it's kind of hard to trust anyone who has never seen a nightmare.


Light. It’s one of the most beautiful words I know. You know what it is when you see it, but it isn’t so easy to describe it.


I finished the last sentence, waited for the file to be stored in the computer, gathered together the large stacks of papers and placed them beside the shelf on the floor of my Brussels apartment. The morning sun had already lit up the room and I let my thoughts and body go numb. I closed the curtain and placed myself on the bed, making myself believe I was going to have a good night’s sleep.

I opened my eyes after an hour. My limbs and my brain were heavy. I was much more tired than hour before, which was good. It was the same morning, but it felt like I was waking up to a new day. The same sun was shining but it was slightly hotter. I went to shower without feeling refreshed, changed my clothes mechanically, closed the front door and lay my feet on the cobble stones of my home street.

The stones were warm from the July morning sun that had dried the light rain over the night. I half ran and half walked along the street, not quite sure whether I was too late or too early. I gasped a bit which I understood as a sign that I was running fast enough, even though of course my lungs didn’t work properly after not having slept more than an hour.


Finally a stone was lifted from my heart. I was expecting my heart be now filled with joy over the soft deep green of the trees on the Sainte-Catherine square, by the warmth of the summer morning sunlight, with refreshing water of the fountains in the square, by the music of the birds. Let alone by the thought of my friends. Come to think of it, couldn’t remember how many weeks it had passed since I had read my emails.

In the meanwhile, the summer had come. I knew that in my country, at this point, the abundant light of the two summer months had finally managed to melt the last remains of snow from the hearts of the people, who could now easily breathe in the mature green scents of the July. Without hesitations they would walk with their bare feet on the warm grass, totally forgetting that the grass had ever been covered with frost. I knew it was July, I saw the light, I felt the sun on my skin, I heard the birds sing, but I didn’t know if I was warm or cold. I was gazing at the July light behind a window covered with frost patterns. I knew the summer was there but I couldn’t feel it. But at least I knew it was there.


On these long wintery nights in July, my mind had started to wander back to one of those nights of February. Like that particular night, though one of many, when the four of us were standing under the starry February sky in the 10 degrees of frost. All four of us, feet frozen, noses bleak and mouths in constant smile, were standing in the crossroads of the always windy Eastern Long Street and the hilly Newland Street, and for the third hour we kept talking constantly, like on so many Sunday nights before. I hadn’t felt my feet in an hour, but of course I acted like I didn’t care. I saw by the smile in Joonatan’s eyes that even he started to have the same problem. We didn’t stop talking even for an instant. And like always, we were saying to ourselves we’d only chat for five minutes more, before we would all have to leave to different directions, me to West, Joonatan to South, Samuel to the East and Johannes to the North. Of course we knew we’d stand there for two hours more if nobody would bring up the prospect of having to wake up early tomorrow.

Samuel looked totally weird in his sandals but that didn’t stop him from smiling heroicly. For some reason, he really didn’t have cold in his feet. He had two large bags with him, where he carried two of his favorite editions in some strange languages, together with all the other equipment we never dared to ask about. Joonatan’s long hair was framed with frost that was made to shine by the street lamp behind him and the alternating green and red colours depending on the street lights that kept on blinking despite the late hour. And Johannes, the youngest of us, with his overwhelming joy and equally overwhelming authority. Who knows how long we would have stayed there, until Johannes finally broke the silence. “Come on guys, let’s take Joonatan to his place so he doesn’t have to walk alone!” Of course the idea was totally insane, we were tired and frozen and had to wake up early in the morning, and the journey would take almost an hour. All in all, this sounded probably the best idea anyone of us could have.

Around five in the morning, the three of us finally left Joonatan's place and walked back across the quiet frosty city. And in the meanwhile, the summer had come. I had to stop and turn around to look at all the four cardinal points, but still I was puzzled. I knew it was February, I could see the white streets and parks all around me, I could feel the frost nipping at my nose, I could hear the snow scrunching below my feet, but still I couldn’t convince myself. By the warmth in my heart, I knew it was a night in the middle of summer. Like the summers of my childhood.


Two weeks ago on Sunday morning, I was at my church in Brussels, sitting a bit grumpy on a bench, streched to the extreme because of the long days of work. I felt so stressed and lonely that at that particular moment, I didn’t care to be polite to people. I felt a bit cold and the people next to me seemed so as well.

Having heard the words of the pastor I felt colder still. There he went on telling all about undeserved love and then suddenly started to make a fiery speech warning against the dangers of hardening your heart. Any other day I could have spent a moment, trying to do search my soul and analyze, whether I indeed had the right mindset. But today – it frankly didn’t even cross my mind to try.

Listening to the sermon, I felt my blood pressure rise and the feeling of indignation warming up the blood of my vains. In the end, the preacher asked softly whether somebody had felt there was something in their lives they needed to bring to the light, so they could come up to the front. But when it came to me, the softness was totally in vain. I marched determinedly to the front and stated bluntly to the preacher that I didn’t need a prayer but instead I had some ideas about his speech.

Being unshakeable in the justness of my cause, I asked him how on earth could he talk in such cold words and lay down burdens on peoples’ shoulders. It couldn’t possibly matter to God whether your heart happened to warm or cold, soft or hard. Well, of course he didn’t exactly react the way I would have wanted to. He was listening very reluctantly and looked like he was ready to turn away any minute.

I finally understood that it was like talking to a wall. Most certainly he was one of those pastors who thought they should do all the talking and others should stay out of this religious business, the women should keep quiet and so on. It was like I was trying to lit a match in the darkness but only created unneeded friction. In the end, he said coldly he would take into account my concern in the next sermon, but it didn’t sound to me very credible. And now additionally, I had to bear the guilt of being so disrespectful. If he didn’t understand anything, I was arguing for no reason.

Over these couple of weeks, I found myself often thinking of this frighteningly cold and condemning person and for my surprise, I felt something warm and new in my heart. That you would put your mind to your work and then hear somebody mock it down, and still endure that courageously. Seeing this, I realized what kind of person he really was. And I was waiting to see him again.

Yesterday I went to the same church again. I was thinking on my way whether I should go and apologize to him. But as I got there, I realized I was so tired I could only lean on my chair and try my best to stay awake. I could hardly concentrate on what the pastor was saying.

But all of a sudden, I saw a bright candle lighting up in his speech, I heard him use the most beautiful expressions such as sharing the word, the spirit of prophecy and the like. Upon his invitation, many people came in the front and told their stories, and over and over again, I saw a candle light up after another, till the whole room was lit. I looked at it and I recognized it, and I remembered it: the light. I wasn't sure whether I was warm or cold, whether I would dare go walking on the grass with my bare feet, but at least I knew the summer was there.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Sybille's creative pieces in French

I have been writing a few more pieces, both in English and in French. I figured out that I would post them in another blog, as some of you may not understand French. I'll keep posting on this blog as soon as I write something good.
The link is
Don't hesitate to leave your comments!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Kurt Vonnegut's 8 basics of Creative Writing*

  1. 'Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.'

* Bagombo Snuff Box

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Belfast calling Brussels

A quick note at 3 a.m. to say thanks for being such Nerds. Sad I missed your last days but we will be back. And we will always be here. Thanks Monica for organising us, Bibil for working so hard on my pics and for trying and get me on to the blog and to Dottir for succeeding. I love all of your recent posts. keep them coming. The worlds your stage, summer stagie's.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Daisies (a poem by John)

Moments of intimacy, in a public place
fine down bristles caress
goosebumpped canvas
Tickles, cool trickles
Moving softly over warm flesh
Throb of music, hum of voices
A haven of peace in this crowded corner
Golden or white petalled waves and spirals
Vegetation growing on bare skin
Smooth shoulders sensuous, Space invaded
Draw close, Move with me
Rest your arm here
Push back the curls
Expanse of pale neck
Fine downy hair
Pale, sensitive
Soft murmer
It feels nice
Oh .. that’s lovely

Thank you
You made me feel special
You made me feel beautiful
(but you were already)
Someday I will paint your portrait

Wake me up

A tribute to R.E.M. paralysis

Try to escape. Dry and tired of dread,
These eyes are trapped. These eyes are to be sold.
The darkness was so comforting once,
And now it's cursed. And these feet are cold.

Someone might be with me in this room,
Someone might be dressing up to leave.
But I can't wake up to see this someone's face
And I cannot speak. And I cannot breath.

Someone might be here in this room, still.
And I wish, I wish, I wish it wasn't me.
I want someone to give me back my will,
I claim for light. I demand sanity.

I wonder who is wearing my old clothes
I wonder who is wearing my old smile
I wonder who is using my old voice
If I'm not here, I wonder, where am I?

Someone is here but I can't see the face
Someone is here but I can't hear the voice
Someone is here, but I can cry no tears
Someone is here but I cannot make noise

Someone still might be here in this room
Someone who could give me back my breath
I promise that I won't be afraid of life
Just don't leave me here being scared to death

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A clash of generations

- All that matters in life is a good family, your health and an interesting job – in that particular order!
She had to turn away because her tears were filling up her eyes and the last thing she wanted was for him to see her cry.
- True, but in this world no-one can make you happy but yourself. Not being dependent is the main goal, remember?
- How can that be when all I think about is YOUR happiness? If you are not happy, I am not happy! When you smile, I smile!
- Well, that is not how it should be. We are all responsible for our own happiness and have to create it by ourselves. “Nothing is so good, it last eternally. Perfect situations must go wrong…” The song came to her so forcefully that she had to check if the radio was on. But it was not, it was all in her head! “But this has never yet prevented me, from wanting far too much for far too long.”
- Sorry, what? Did you say anything?
She turned around and looked at him. But he was silent and kept silent for the rest of the drive…And she was left with her own thoughts and memories.

A sea of numbers

I feel lost. I am there, alone among a sea of lonely souls and no rescue is to be found. Around me there is fear, tears, lonely hearts and abandon creatures. Once part of an identity but now nothing else than just another number in an incomprehensive pile of numbers, waiting to be counted, categorized, classified and forgotten. Once part of a culture, a heritage, a past and dreams of the future. Now just another shadow in the sad and dark part of the world where smiles are vicious and kindness a sign of weakness. Once part of an entity, a family, a clan or tribe, a society of importance and with respect to be earned. Now left with nothing else than praying for the willingness of the rest to stay alive, to live or die.

I am among you. I am one of you. I am part of you, your flesh and blood, your sister and brother, mother and father, family. I am with you and yet I am not. I am someone, yet no-one, nothing to be said and done. In this lonely sea of despair, fear and lost dreams they are the captains, they are the once with boats and they have the power to decide…Who will survive and who will be left behind. We are the waves, drifting endlessly in the sea and only stopping when we hit the shore, finally finishing our journey, just to die.

I used to be somebody. I used to be more than a number, a part of your statistical tables and graphs. I used to be special, important, part of the inner circle of life and love. I used to be a fighter, a survivor, a traveler and an individual with goals. I used to be everything but in your hands I am lost!

It is time. My time has come. A step ahead, then another one. A long and painful silent procedure toward becoming a no-one forever doomed to everlasting silence and anonymous…Gone! Name, age, origin, height, weight, colour of the eyes and skin…I am stripped off all my belongings one by one. I am robbed off my privileges and characteristics step by step. I am becoming their no-one, dying forever, and becoming just another number on the list. You can take me, strip med down, even kill me…But my dreams will stay and they will keep me alive, preserving me as the one.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


My name is Clarity. That is because my mother wanted me to be as beautiful as light and to only speak the truth. She believed that names make you what you are. If she had to name me again, I think she would choose “Sanity”. The way my mind works has been a very unsettling thing for her.

I would tend to agree, but Helen says that actually, my twisted mind has been my greatest success so far. Helen is my agent, she finds clients who buy my work. I am an artist, I paint. Paintings are not a difficult thing to sell if they please the eyes of the bourgeoisie, Helen says. Mines do, so I am selling a lot of them.

This morning at 5:26 am, I finished my 348th painting, oil on a 30x60 canvas. It’s a purple and magenta horse riding on a black sea, though one could hardly manage to see what it is anymore, except that it is dark. It will go well with the sand colours of the rich peoples’ beach houses.
As usual, Helen visits my studio at 8 AM. She knocks on my door and opens it at the same time. She is wearing pink gloves and a hand-knitted white scarf. She is the one who should have been named Clarity. “Seems like this Hollywood Cerise is fitting your style” she says.
I love that about her. She can always tell the exact colours even when all I can see is just “pink” or “blue”. “Have you managed to sell them?” I ask.
“Rather well. They’ve all been taken by this new restaurant, you know, this five stars place I talked about the other day. They paid a high price. They are going for purple and black, you see, and it turned out that this touch of red-pink really did add something”.
“How is the lighting going to be?”
“As you suggested: soft. Candle lights, mostly, and a few bulbs here and there. Nothing too flashy. It’s going to be a chic and intimate place.”
Helen briefs me about the media reviews and latest trends but I barely listen to her. I have been painting all night. My muscles are sore and my arms tremble a little from holding a brush for too long. The restaurant wants to complete the collection, she says.
I will work on a commission. It’s going to be a large 200x250 canvas. This artwork is going to be what everyone who’s anyone will see when they enter the place. It’s going to do the cover of magazines. My painting will be the restaurant’s main feature. No, it will be the restaurant. Therefore, it must be a masterpiece. The restaurant liked my darker work, but now they want something else. They want bright, powerful and vivid. But mostly, they want light.
“What’s wrong with the black?” I ask.
“Nothing wrong, no, nothing wrong. They just want a contrast. A kind of Chiaroscuro of your own definition.”
“I’m not good with light”, I say.
“Clarity, you’re brilliant. You just don’t have the material”. But she does. Helen had planned everything. She’s got the colours in a bag along with pictures of the place. She’ll have the canvas delivered within the day. It’s going to be a very good pay. I should keep painting horses and children, the restaurant liked that theme. I suspect Helen to have made up the last part: how could they see what I was meaning to paint?
So there will be no sleep today. The trouble is, light is not my friend, it panics me. I like to paint with black colours. My work is deep, is dark, is dim. It’s Clarity painting the night.

I make myself two cups of coffee and draws off the curtains. What an irony to be named Clarity and not to know how to paint things white. I start making outlines on my sketch book. The restaurant wants vivid shapes. I would give him curves like if I was painting magma and flames.

You must wonder why I paint black. My mother doesn’t like it. She says it is all the evil of my dark soul projected on canvas. She sees black as the lack of colours, of light, as a nothing. Little does she know that black actually is a strong combination of colours. Black is not empty, it is full. It absorbs the light, it absorbs the heat, it is more mighty and warm than any other pigment. Besides, my first clients thought that it was elegant. “Clarity is the new black”, the press liked to say. Yet it also said I depicted a “world of shadow and unending darkness”, as if obscurity was somehow my distress. Most people fail to see how comforting black is. It is no black hole, it is no chaos. It is quite. Black is silence.

Light is nature’s ultimate fury.

I play around with the colours, simmering my brush into what now looks like a frosty pink. I don’t want pink, it’s cold, and if I am to paint light I must paint it warm. Light had been so warm that night. I first thought I should be painting something mundane, a colour I could call “amaranth” or “alizarin” without feeling pretentious. There will be no pretension. Horses and children, what an irony. I’ve been meaning to paint this for a while. It’s an excruciating path to take.

I was ten. My mother wanted me to play with the upper class kids, so every summer she sent me away to horse riding camp. I went because it made her proud. Besides, I liked the place. I liked the horses, of course, and I spent a lot of time drawing them, but mostly I liked the countryside. I liked the sounds of the nightfall, the frogs croaking, the bats sending ultrasound signals and the owls doing their owl stuff. How fascinating it must be to see what other animals cannot! But children were not allowed to go out at night because it wasn’t safe. The building was inescapable, everything was locked. It wasn’t necessary because the other kids were afraid of the dark: they thought that this was the time when the monsters crept out from beneath their beds. Yet I didn’t fear. I let the protecting mantle of the darkness surround me. At night time, you hear people breathing in their sleep, gentle dreams dancing through their heads. You hear the silence of the world, the hidden little sounds of the invisible. Then you start to think. You start to think about the things that your mind does not understand clearly. You think, you rest, you think, you rest, everything is quiet, and then you see it. You see the truth.

I am like an owl, I only see clear in the dark.

On that particular night, though, it was not normal. The darkness wasn’t dark. The silence wasn’t silent. You could hear the sound of wood cracking, like a campfire, except that the heat was much, much stronger. Then suddenly there were flames, licking the roof, devouring the fabrics with their violent gluttony. We were breathing ashes and red dust. It burned. There were ten of us, but because the building was locked, only eight managed to get out.

I never went to horse riding camp again.

I am brushing large strokes with rapid moves. There are the flames, the forces of destruction and light. What I am doing is raw. It is my pain, my fears, my losses, my cries. It is all what the earth took from me in its enlightened cruelty. I am painting horses and children crushed in a scarlet whirl. They wanted warm? I will give them a combustion. I am sweating from the effort provoked by the strength of my strokes. The canvas is my fight. I rip the colour tube open with a knife and throws white paint in the explosion. My chest feels about to burst. My work looks like a murder scene.

Then comes the night, and I cannot see the light anymore. It’s all dark. My mind stops racing. I remember I haven’t slept or eaten for more than 30 hours. I am tired, but more than that, I feel at peace.

When Helen arrives in the morning, she stands immobile in the front door. My masterpiece is there, disturbing, in front of her.
“Dark tangerine” is all she manages to say.

Monday, July 14, 2008


Exercise: write a short scene from the point of view of a man who has a long history of controlling a woman. Keep in mind this question: why does she stay with him?

I found a cookie box at the back of the cupboard. Again. She’s got this craving for sweet things so typical of immature women.
_ Honey, I don’t think that this item was on the shopping list, was it? I say accusingly.
She has to confess.
_ No, it wasn’t.
_ So why did you buy it?
_ Because I wanted to.
_ Don’t you think that it’s a bit unnecessary?
_ It is only one cookie box.
Her words are provocative but her body language is not. She looks embarrassed by the way I gaze at her. She’s been found guilty. How many times did we have this conversation before? She knows that the cookies are bad for her. She’s always on the edge of getting overweight. It costs us money – my money. Money which could be spent on useful things.
_ So this week you bought cookies, but last week you also bought shortbreads, and the week before, brownies. It’s not just one box of cookies, darling. It’s all the boxes that you keep on buying.
_ I can’t help it. I like sweet things so much.
Her voice is plaintive by now.
_ You like them but you don’t need them, love.
_ I don’t care.
_ Do not pretend not to care. I know how you are feeling about your weight. You don’t even want me to look at you wearing underwear. Eating these things will not help you to solve the problem.
She doesn’t say anything at first, as if she was trying to catch her breath, then she said in that broken voice she uses every time she wants me to pity her:
_ Stop calling it a problem. It is insensitive.
_ Sweetheart. You know I’m only saying this because I care for you. You’ve got to control your eating frenzies. I can’t control them for you all time.
_ Then don’t. I am not a child.
I grin. She is a child. A big child. She cannot take care of herself. If I wasn’t there, she would have been obese by now. I smile and I say in a cajoling tone:
_ I have so much affection for you, dear. You cannot reproach me to show you attention.
Then in a more passionate tone,
_ You know what? Eat them if you want. Eat them in front of me. I will not say anything. We’ll go to the gym class on Monday.
I kiss her on the cheek. She does not refuse me.
She’s a bit upset, but her protest is only formal. The cookie box is only a small incident on her way to perfection. We’ve made so much progress lately. Before we got together there were so many things that she was doing wrong! She lacked self confidence on every aspect of her life. She could never decide what she wanted for herself. She was miserable. For everyone except for herself, it was clear that she couldn’t be on her own. All aspects of her body and mind were looking for a guide. She was lost. I found her.
Since I’ve been there for her, life has been the happiest for both of us. She needed me and in return she gave me unconditional admiration and love. I was her hero. I do need to have her feeling this way about me. That’s what makes our love so strong: we cannot live if not with each other.
_ You will never let me go, will you? She says in a joyful but yet defiant tone.
_ Dear. You know I could never abandon you, I reply.
Then she cuddles in my arms. For a moment, I wonder if she might have meant: “will you ever set me free?”. This worried me a lot lately. I am afraid that there will be a time when she will not need me anymore. What will I do then?
But I don’t need to think about this for now. She takes the cookie box, pretends to open it, then hesitates and throws it away. I have to remember to check whether the box stays exactly on the same spot of the trash bin.
I will never let her go.

Thursday, July 10, 2008


Here are the pictures! Taken by Monica, Sahar and Edina.

More pictures available on the Who is Who DVD.

What was the Creative Writing Subcommittee?

The folder that we gathered for the Who is Who looks great, with a lot of pictures, texts, sketches and videos. I am very impatient that you can all see it. In the meantime, here is the text that I wrote as an introduction to the folder (with Monica's part published in the backstage journal).
Photos will come next... Don't forget to publish your texts on the blog!

Monica Westeren described the Creative Writing Subcommittee a few weeks after its creation in these terms:

"The subcommittee for creative writing was formed on a buzzing night in an Irish pub near Schuman: a bunch of Commission stagiaires, looking for their lost creativity amidst EU Directives and Regulations; speaking points and briefing notes.
We share at least one passion: Literature. (And perhaps even another: Finnish chocolate, judging by the big turnout of people at the first meeting, after being promised a piece of the brown gold).
The first theme to write on was "intercultural miscommunication" – an area where we are all experts. Living in at least a couple of EU countries gives you a taste for the vastly different behaviour across the borders. Whether it is about eating manners, time management or ability to speak to strangers, at some point you are bound to run into difficulties. We saw these misunderstandings as a great source of inspiration, and decided to let our imagination run wild…"

It has now been five months filled with creative meetings, picnics and drinks. We gathered every Tuesday night around a glass of wine to let our creativity flow. Each reunion brought different themes and writing styles to learn from. The first meetings were attentively planned, with texts to read and themes to write on. Yet progressively, we all found our own directions and our own ways to express ourselves through words on paper – or with the help of sketches or a guitar.

As for my own experience, the spark of inspiration arrived at the first meeting. Sharing my passion for writing was something new to me. So far, my only audience had been friends and family, none of them being able to give me a feedback from a writer's perspective. On that day, Sahar was reading a dialogue with no title, which was later called "a clash of generation". I arrived home at midnight, sat down and wrote until three. It had been six years since I last touched a pen. Looking back, I am surprised I have managed to live without it. Forgotten sensations came back at once: the chill of expressing the inexpressible, of gathering a cluster of words into something meaningful. Going back to writing was like being reunited with a childhood friend.
Each of us had unique ways to tell things. Monica, the founder of the group, focused mostly on gender difference, a topic which was brought to a new light with David's male point of view. Edina, our writeaholic and cofounder of the Committee, wrote pages of powerful stories with a poetic touch; equally poetic were Ruth's short stories and Marcin's longer novels. Erna's and Sahar's texts were more vivid, based on dialogues at first, then slowly developing towards a greater introspection. Then there were John's creative pieces, on paper yet rarely as a prose: poems, sketches, songs, in whichever direction his inspiration drove him.
It was a great bunch of inspired people, and for sure an exclusive experience. We turned out to prove that creative writing could cross boundaries and languages, to form a sort of "intercultural communication", as to prove our first theme wrong.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

T.C. Boyle, Chixculub

I read a really good and powerful novel called Chixculub by T.C. Boyle. I thought I would share it with you. It was published in the New Yorker in 2004.
Here is the link

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Writing exercise: the reluctant I

I have been writing a short story based on the following writing exercise. The aim is to experiment point of views and the use of the first/third persons. I will publish my text in a few days to leave some time to anyone who wishes to write one as well.
The Reluctant I
Write a first-person story in which you use the first-person pronoun (I or me or my) only two times - but keep the I somehow important to the narrative you're constructing. The point of this exercise is to imagine a narrator who is less interested in himself than in what he is observing. You can make your narrator someone who sees an interesting event in which he is not necessarily a participant. Or you can make him self-effacing, yet a major participant of the events related. It is very important in this exercise to make sure your reader is not surprised, forth or fifty words into the piece, to realize that this is a first-person narration. Show us quickly who is observing the scene. 500-600 words.
Taken from: KITELEY (Brian), The 3 A.M. Epiphany: uncommon writing exercises that transform your fiction, Ohio, Writer's Digest Books, 2005.
Alternatively: I also practiced on the use of the imperative form. The exercise comes from the same book and asks, basically, to write a 500 words story using the imperative form: Do this, Don't do that, etc. For example, Hear my neighbour come home from her night shift. Remember the sound of the key lock when I see her in the morning. The author believes that this is also an interesting exercise to see how you will organise the timing of the sequences, i.e. how these imperatives are following each other in a time frame. I will write down the complete exercise as soon as I am home again.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

John's sketches

The pictures are uploaded on Flickr so you can download them in full resolution. Just click on the picture you like and choose the button "all sizes" then "original size" then "download the original size".
John, could you please make your own comments on your sketches?
John's sketches
John's sketches
John's sketches
John's sketches
John's sketches
John's sketches
John's sketches
John's sketches
John's sketches
John's sketches
John's sketches

Friday, May 30, 2008

A story based on Monica's dream

''The story which I am to tell you, will be recited 200 years after my death. I will have returned to soil, as should be, and so will my children and great grand-children have done. Only Ada will still be around. I planted her in 2010, on my 52 birthday''

It was an early summer afternoon, and the sun was strong and sharp, through which one could see leaf of dusts as little snowflakes and white tiny flowers carrying through the widow from the garden. All was full of life. All of the nature uttered sounds, working hard. The green, this green was inimitable. I had to close my eyes. The light was too bright. A bee flowed and sat close to the wardrobe. I observed her delicate wings and their fast moves. She continued to walk as she knew the way. I realised that she went into the space between the wardrobe and wall where I saw to my surprise a kind of shelf. I decided to shift the wardrobe a little bit in order to find out that shelf. Bee flown nervously. I took out my hand and found in her a riddled notebook, with the sketch of Montmartre on brown cover. I saw that there are more similar notebooks, all in the same state, with the Paris cover. I leafed through the notebook hastily seeing yellow pages filled with petty handwriting being written with ink that become to fade away.
I heard some sound of breaking porcelain, oh god that must be Anna, so nervous, as usual. We do not have too much time. We need to prepare the entire house and the garden before new landlords will move in. I got a headache from yesterday for with Tosiek and Anna we celebrated the selling of the house. And Janusz our youngest brother congratulated us via the skype: it is indeed a good deal – he said.
Yes, indeed a good deal, best we could have. The house was old, needed general renovation and they paid surprisingly good money. They have already showed us the plan for new hotel and new garden. They were so excited – and here in the middle we will build a swimming pool. Even Gorlice need a three star hotel. Honestly, I do not care about this plan; I think it is crazy to invest here, in a middle of nowhere and I think they going to bankrupt very soon.
They were like from the moon, I mean from Warsaw, and they did not negotiate the price. The neighbours were jealous. And as for me – I signed with relief. It was pointless to pay all taxes and costs for a house like this, huge, old and so expensive, and nobody lived there, nobody wanted to move. Only Anna disagreed. She was sentimental and cried yesterday. Well, there was something in her arguments – it is a house built by our parents. And our mother was so determine not to sell it, she always repeated – ''it is all you have''. But Anna was a retired teacher and could not have enough money to maintain the house and to pay our parts. It was then better for all, better for all……
Besides, for me this house always brought some burdens, and unnecessities. All the holidays I had to come here from Katowice a distance of 300 kilometres, and recently even every second week when she had started to have problems with legs. She was so stubborn not to move to the city. stubborn, both. They had saved all their money for that house, all their lives! I did not have even pocket money! And recently the garden has became dark and moist, for mother forbid to chop all these old, not bearing fruits, these silly crooked apples trees that overshadowed the house. It was something I could not really believed. How many times we asked to cut these god damned trees?
No time, no time, hangover, we drunk a little bit too much, and then I dreamt about Anna's tears. I do not feel pity at all. You should be more pragmatic. Less burdens, more happiness. That the way it is. My poor sister could not understand the simplest message. No time….Calm down, calm. How many times I had to repeat all that thoughts? How many times I had to go through this labyrinth? Everything has been decided. I should feel now calm. I need to feel calm. And I cannot not. All the time the same burden, when it will stop to heavy my head?
I saw I bowed this strange notebook. There was something in it, a breath of the past, forgotten smell or shape that I could not resist that pushed me to open it once more and pushed me to read my father's diligent writing:

''All my life was full of work and duties. And pain. As a youth, I suffered and could not stand any injustice. But still I believe in good part of the world. I always believed that there is a kind of message in all that moves of nature, like in a game of chess.''

''I meet her in a spa; she was as young as I was. My lungs had already begun to heal; I could spend more hours in the garden with the wild apple trees. She said to me once that she knew she is going to die''

''Love means life and once more I could feel it in my soul. Sometimes I could feel I have two hearts. It was light and good. I could not sleep. Next day I returned home''

''M accepted me; although she knew everything, she knew all at first glance, just looked at my eyes in the platform at the Railway station''

''I found a beautiful quote in Westeren's famous book, something about Ada, and the tree. It was first quote in my diary. I was dreaming about a story of revolutionists from Peru that has been rectified 200 years after his death. I think that our life is even more beautiful because true one and even more magical, for based on facts. Sorrow disappeared for a while when I planted a new apple tree in my garden – Ada''

''I think this ordinary feeling that with passing time you have forgot to name as love, that we had with M, is like our garden. The older the more beautiful.''

Anna went to the room, and smiled:
– Why you laugh? Did you find something funny?
I hid the notebook quickly and could not answer. I watched her wrinkles and tired but still full of light eyes.
– What do have there? Did you find something?
– Well.. Nothing special. Just some stupid bills of mother – she smiled even brighter. Her wrinkles for a moment disappeared.
– ach her bills. Funny woman. You remember? She used to write all her expenses. Well... OK, please hurry, we have only two hours
– I know I know. We will manage Anna.
She went back with reluctance. I threw the notebook away. I didn't want to read it any more. My father as a writer, poet, or whatever. I started to laugh. Miserable. He was coal miner! Or I should cry and cry out loud. Shame of all these lies. Shame of their imagination! It must not be truth. And even if it is, we should not know anything about it; another romance of our father. Another disgrace. Such a contradiction - for all we remember his calm face while he was sitting on the bench in the garden waiting for the twilight; he seemed to be noble, all his moves were full of charm even the way he held his waning cigarette between his fingers; his steadiness and awaiting, and silence that I could not stand. Once I asked him what did he think? He did not react. I left him alone. Now I know… we all supposed something. I decided to burn all the notebooks. It has to be like this. Anna could cry and Tosiek could feel an unnecessary burden. It was my duty to cut the past. I was the oldest. I tore only one page and place it in my pocket. Later, after we gave the keys to new landlords, in Tosiek's car, on the way back to Katowice, I have read on the faded, yellow page:

''What year, what month, what day? I can not longer hear the birds surrounding young Ada; her leaves vanish from my sight''

Monday, May 19, 2008

By the rivers of Babylon (by John)

Blurb & Babel
In bucketloads

Endless streams
Reams and reams
Weighty tomes with
Glossy pics
Little children
Czechs or Greeks

Machine translation
Much more babble
No more FISH
More gook to be gobbled
In staff canteens.

Fonctionnairres gabble as they gobble
in third languages
About third worlds and second marriages
Jargon phrases strung in line
Continuous sentences
Cohesion policies
Contiguous concepts,

Not Mighty Nimrud
Nor Nebudchadnezzar in all his glory
Built such a Babylon
No, Leonardo, Erasmus or Phare-oh
Faced such communication breakdown
Neither Breughel's art Nor Bosch's nightmare could
Foresee such horrors;-

Words grow legs.
Letters breed -


Has, ever in the concours of human endeavour,
So little been owed by so few to so many
Social Partners and Scientific experts
Their words going down in history
Down, down,
History grumbles and groans
drowns under vocab
Gurgles below the grammar
Spits and spots
Sprinkles and splashes
Pools and puddles
Showers, and streams
Rivers and raging torrents
Tides, waves and whirlpools
Eddies and ebbs and flows
An old world destroyed in the deluge

No Gilgamesh or Noah ever gooked gobble like these
Stepping into brave new world, Europabylon
Towers, higher than Babel
Not Nebuchdnezzars boastful bricks
Or hanging gardens
But shiny glass
Towering mounds of words
Endless sentences, with no beginning
subject buried 'neath depths
of Structural regional Subsidiarity,
Globalised Relocations
Restructurings and Adjustment funds

Institutions, member States, regional Authorities
Initiatives and frameworks of cumulated and coordinated analyses
Countless commissioners crafting communications for coming councils.
Competing to capitalise on practices and fostering multi actors approaches to change and restructuring via the restructuring forum

Full forests of fine firs and costly cedars
Consumed to enshrine forever the
Wisdom of Babylon's seers
Hymns to Marduk
Songs of Uruk
Cohesive but incoherent
Still prognosticating on the changing weather
Climactic change
Fulsome, unwholesome,
Endogenous, Indigenous, exogenous. Nitrogenous.

John Rubery

Writing excersices by Monica

1. Continue the story that starts in this way:
"The first time was amazing. The second time pretty good. The third time she was indifferent and by the fourth time she was bored. She could no more. And then the circle started all over again."


2. Complete the story that starts in the following way:
"The story which I am about to tell you, will be recited 200 years after my death. I will have returned to soil, as should be, and so will my grand-children and great grand-children have done. Only Ada will still be around (hopefully - if the vegetation on earth has not changed drastically). I planted her in 2010, on my 52 birthday.

AND finishes like this:

"What year, what month, what day? I can no longer hear the birds surrounding young Ada; her leaves vanish from my sight."

So, if you choose number 1, all you need to do is FINISH the story. If you choose number 2, write the chore of the story, as the beginning and the end are already given!

Vonnegut for Tuesday

Hello all, the reading for this Tuesday is a Vonnegut short story, you can find it here:

We'll meet at Monica's at 8. Thanks to the crazy weather we can build a snowman in her garden. It will be fun! Looking forward to see you and read your stories,



I thought about childhood as a period to survive. I thought that life will start when I grow up and I will be surrounded by friendly adults who will discuss food prices in calm, comforting voice, while drinking cold lemonade on a shaded terrace. I decided that once I will grow up I will never again speak to any child and that if a child will come to me on the street to ask what the time is, I will turn my back on her, and start whistling.
When I was six I was forced to go to school. Until that time I was all right with life and life was all right with me. Even my mother was all right with me at those early years, if I remember well. I never had a father. Normal little girls had fathers, sitting in the armchair of the living room and watching football.
At school I was forced to sit in one place for forty minutes, quietly, motionless. I felt an intolerable tension, as if my body was preparing to explode. I saw myself blowing up, covering the faces of my classmates with a million little particles of Emily. That is my name: Emily. I always felt disconnected from my name. It might have been accidentally exchanged in the newborn department, I thought. There was nothing Emilyish in me. Emily is a blond girl, pale skinned and blue eyed, playing with dolls and wearing a white skirt with yellow flowers. I had dark hair, dark skin and dark eyes, like a goblin. Goblins can be called Gorlak or Singra, possibly Ashanti, but not Emily. I suspected a fatal mistake had happened somehow in the newborn department. What if I was really the child of a happy and loud family with countless brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles? What if my mother had been to the hospital because of a serious flu, and by accident she was sent home with a baby? She might have been too polite to uncover the misunderstanding, as she never liked to reject authorities, such as greengrocers or a nurse. That's what I was in her life: a fatal error.
In the mornings when I stared out of the school bus window, a goblin was looking back at me from outside, with big, dark goblin eyes.
" Hello goblin". I said every morning.
"Hello goblin". The goblin said every morning.
During the breaks at school I was exposed to the endless ignorance of my classmates. They would stand in the courtyard, girls in white skirts in a circle, chatting and laughing. Once in a while I collected all my courage, and approached them. Words can’t kill, but silence can. They stopped speaking, demonstrating how unwanted my company was. That was their game, the only game they played with me: the shut up game. I was standing there, puzzled. I wanted to say something but didn’t find anything to say. So I was just staring at them. That was the only game I could offer to play with them: the staring game. Who can bear it longer without Blinking (?) ? I always won. So they blinked and I went back to the classroom, and sat there until the end of the break.
One afternoon, after an unbearably quiet day, I went home and switched on the television, to fill my head with noises. I chose a football game: television can scare the hell out of you if you are alone at home and it’s getting dark outside, but there is nothing less scary than a football game. Suddenly I found my father sitting in the armchair, watching the game. He had white hair and long white beard; he was a mixture of Santa Claus, Gandalf and God. I leaned my back against his calves, and watched the television with him. I didn’t say a word; I didn’t want to break the harmony of the moment.
"Why do you sit on the floor?" – My mother asked me when she arrived home. – "And why do you watch football? Normal little girls play with dolls, and never watch football".
I didn’t like to play with my dolls, because my dolls were blind and deaf. I could do or say anything to them, but they remained silent. I combed their hair and I dressed them, but they didn’t say a word and I didn’t feel satisfaction. I cut their hair short as if they were soldiers, and gave them orders to kill the enemy, but they didn’t move or say a word, and I didn’t feel satisfaction. I bit their nose, wrung their arms, pushed them under the water, but they didn’t say a word. I hid their abused bodies in the laundry, but my mother found them. I knew that I deserved to be punished, but my mother didn’t say a word, just placed them back on the shelf of my room. My dolls were staring at me accusingly, noseless, with arms untwisted, and I didn’t dare to fall asleep.
On the weekends I tried to play with my mother, but she was always busy with working, cooking, cleaning.
" Do you want me to help, mum?" I asked her.
"Go to play, Emily". She said.
"I don’t know how to play". I said.
" Every little girl knows how to play". She said.
I didn’t know though. No one ever taught me. I was sitting in my room, staring at my dolls. They stared back at me. That was what we were playing: the staring game. Who can do it longer without blinking? They always won.
My happiest day at school was when the new girl came. She was standing alone in the courtyard during the long break, and I collected all my courage to approach her. I didn’t know what to say to her, but I felt comforted already not being alone.
She smiled at me and said that her name was Joan but I can call her Joe. I laughed, and said to her that my name is Emily but she can call me Richard. She didn’t find my joke funny, but she tolerated my company all break long, and I felt full with gratitude. By the end of the day I asked her if she wants to be my best friend. She said she will think about it. I told her that I never had a best friend before, and she could come over after school one day to play with my dolls.
I was so excited to have a best friend that I got high fever on that evening and my mother didn’t let me to go to school, despite my tears and craving. I was forced to stay at home for one week. Next Monday I found my best friend in the circle of the white skirts and yellow flowers. I didn’t dare to approach her there; I had to wait for a moment when she was alone.
Finally she left the circle and entered the school building. I followed her, and found her in the bathroom, washing a spot out of her white skirt. I didn’t know what to say to her.
" Why are you staring at me? " She asked.
"I’m not staring at you. That’s all I found to say.
" Yes, you are staring at me".
" I'm not".
I wanted to ask her if she wants some magic chewing gum, I wanted to ask her if she wants to come over after school to play with my dolls, but my tongue was paralyzed.
"Stop staring at me!" – She snapped at me.
I didn’t know what to say, but I didn’t dare to look at her anymore. So I stared at the yellow flowers on her white skirt.
"Leave me alone, please". She sighed. "I’m new and I need to find friends".
She left me alone in the bathroom. I went back to the classroom and was sitting there until the geography class had started. The teacher was speaking about the mountains, the mines in the mountains, and the minerals in the mines, and I couldn’t concentrate on what she was saying. I wished she had been talking about the goblins and elves living in the mines of the mountains, but she didn’t say a word about them, as if they didn’t exist at all. I felt again the overwhelming compulsion to run round and round the classroom, to scream, to explode. Goblins know how to turn invisible. I climbed silently under my desk, and started to crawl out.
I just have to reach the door and then I can start running. No one would miss me if I leave, and I wouldn’t miss anyone, so if this world is a logical world they will let me leave.
"Ms Mansfield, Emily is under my table! "A girl yelled. I wasn’t invisible anymore, the magic had gone.
-"Emily", - the teacher asked," would you share with us what exactly are you doing under the table?"
I didn’t know what to reply. I was staring at the feet of the screaming girl.
"She thinks she is a bear, she wants to crawl back to the circus". Someone whispered, and the girls were giggling. I pictured myself in the circus, crawling around with bears, jumping through flaming rings, and I had to laugh.
"You are making jokes here? You find it funny, Emily?" The teacher asked. " What will your mother say about this?"
"Why can’t you be a normal little girl like your classmates?" – My mother asked me that evening, after consulting with Ms Mansfield.
" I’m not a little girl". – I said.
If they were little girls, then I couldn’t be one.
"What are you then, if not a little girl?" – My mother asked me. "A little boy?"
A goblin is neither a he, nor a she. A goblin is an ‘it’. Emilit.
" I can be invisible". I said. " I can disappear anytime I want. Do you want me to show you?"
I held my breath and disappeared. Then I exhaled and appeared again.
" I don’t like little girls". I said to my mother. "If I will ever be a mother and I give birth to a little girl, I will leave her in the supermarket. Or exchange her for a male dog".
"Emily, Emily, Emily!". – My mother said.
The following day I was standing on the courtyard of the school, and suddenly I found myself in the centre of the circle. This was the moment I had always dreamed of, and when finally it happened, my blood ran cold.
"We will play with you". They said.
I shook my head.
" I don’t want to play with you". – I said.
"You will play with us". they said. "We will play the school game. You are the teacher, and we are the students".
They gave me a piece of chalk, posted me in front of the wall, and cordoned me with their white skirts. They were waiting for the bear to perform, they wanted circus. I stared dumbly at the yellow-flowered firing squad.
I thought that the moment would never end, and that I would grow old there in the centre of the circle, but suddenly the silence exploded: they burst into screams of laughter. I stood paralyzed where I was placed, in front of the wall, in the fire of laughter.
I started screaming when my mother told me that she had asked Ms Mansfield to speak with the other little girls and tell them to play with me.
"Stop screaming". my mother said. I didn’t stop screaming. My mother went to her bedroom, locked the door and turned up the radio. I was hitting the door and screaming, until I got exhausted.
"How could she do that?" I asked my dolls. My dolls were speechless.
"How could she do that?" I asked my father. My father was speechless.
Thereafter the little girls started to play with me, and I realized how comforting my solitude was before. They took me to their homes after school, they combed my hair and dressed me, but I didn’t say a word and they weren’t satisfied. They cut my hair short and gave me orders, they bit my nose and untwisted my arms, they pushed me under the water but I remained silent and they weren’t satisfied. I was hiding in the laundry, but they found me again and placed me back on the shelf. I was staring at them, speechless, arms untwisted.
Then I grew up.
It took some time, but I survived my childhood. I was looking desperately for so long for those adults , speaking in calm and comforting voices, drinking cold lemonade on a shaded terrace. And when I found them, I saw that they were all wearing white skirts with yellow flowers.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Time to measure

“The timeless in you is aware of life's timelessness; and knows that yesterday is but today's memory and tomorrow is today's dream.” - Kahlil Gibran

Everybody feels sorry for me because I have no parents. The other children in my class make sure to choose me first to their team when we play football – even though I never hit the ball. When we queue for the swings, they all tell me to go ahead. The other children get punished for not doing their homework, but I just receive a tired sigh from Mrs Eglington. It doesn’t matter. I know more than them anyway.

I live with Ranja; she is divorced but still very attractive. I like her. She tells me stories about little princes, lost kingdoms and dragons in the evening. I think she once had a child, a boy like me, but he is gone now. I think he left because he was allergic to the antique furniture in Ranja’s house.

-Areth, let’s build sandcastles together, let’s build up a whole empire that we can rule over until the end of times!
-Until the end?
-Come on, our empire will be the most powerful one you’ve ever seen! Our sandcastle will be the best one ever built!
-What is best?
-Together we can make it big. Let’s make it one whole metre in diameter!
-Yeah, like huge. We can continue working on it tomorrow, and make it even better!
-How is tomorrow?

I like to draw. When I am not in school, or helping Ranja with the household chores, I draw meetings between tiny figures. They are smaller than the children at school, but more intelligent. They live in the valley of Aegon, where trees are simply trees and not short or tall; where not all flowers have a name; and where today is now but so is tomorrow. Once, Ranja found me staring at one of my drawings. It had small stains of water on it, as if the ceiling in my room had been leaking.
-What have you drawn, little Areth? She asked with that sweet but oblivious voice of hers.
-It’s my family. My home. Suddenly ashamed of showing her my tears, I turned away, grabbing the drawing with me. I crumpled it into a small globe, pressing it together as much as I could, and threw it out of the window. Maybe the neighbour’s cat would find it and eat it.

My best friends in school are Ellinor and Imran. They tell everyone they are cousins, but I don’t believe they are related – though one day I think they will be. Our plays are more intelligent than the other children’s, because we play with our minds. We stand in a circle, holding each other’s hands with our eyes closed. Without speaking, I tell them to catch me if they can. Ellinor is always the first one to seize me. She presses my hand firmly, waiting for Imran to also receive the message.

One day when we’re playing our telepathic game, Ellinor does not answer my call. Her hand remains slack like a puppet without its master, and I feel my lungs sinking into my chest. The air is almost out, but I continue holding my breath. The sky is spinning above my head and I see the inhabitants of Aegon gathering around my little blue body. A thin woman with a pencil behind her ear is bent over me, making chirping sounds with her throat.
-My little naughty Areth, my little, tiny precious one…

When I open my eyes again, I find my sighing teacher kneeling next to me. She is wearing a brown hat which looks like a squirrel, and I hide my nose within my palm, so as not to have it mistaken for a nut.
-Little boys need to breath, she tells me mechanically. Otherwise they will die. I know that Ellinor and Imran are gone, and that they will not come back. “You were always the third, you were always the third, you were always the third wheel…” Their singing penetrates my brain, and I start squirming with pain. I want them to stop, but they only sing louder. I see them running hand in hand; with the same blond hair being brushed by the wind. I know now that they will become one family.
-How is third? I ask Mrs Eglington.

Another day, Ranja took me to the zoo to see the lions, the tigers and the ostriches. In one of her magazines, I had seen a lion feasting on a deer that had broken its leg, so I knew what they looked like. Tigers were similar, so I accepted them; but ostriches were untraceable. Ranja told me ostriches have wings, and they stick their head into the ground when they get scared. I saw in front of me a bird being chased by a lion, and suddenly stopping to cover its head in the mud. To me, ostriches did not sound like very intelligent animals.

Ranja is normally good at holding my hand and keeping track of me, but I think she was missing her little boy so much that day that she forgot to look after me. After seeing the tigers, I got bored and drifted away from my caretaker. She was busy helping a less educated girl feed little bunnies with grass. I thought about feeding the bunnies to either the lions or the tigers, and wondered whether this sight would make the ostriches hide their heads in the ground.

They must have been looking for me ever since the sunlight disappeared – I had heard Ranja’s normally calm voice turn high pitch and shaky. There were unknown men’s voices, too. But I was telling a new group of friends about the valley of Aegon, “where you work when you can, and sleep when you can’t”, and they embraced me in their circle of safety. No one asked when or how or why; they simply just listened. Or else they ate – if they were hungry. Or else they picked little dots from each other’s heads. It made me think of a TV programme entitled “The Next Evolution”, which Mrs Edlington had showed the whole class once. At that moment, I knew Aegon was within reach; that the time to measure would end soon, and that I then would get to experience its smell of sand, water and trees; all mixed together in a heavenly bliss.

Monica Westerén, 12.5.2008

Monday, May 5, 2008

Alert: Next session!!

All my lovely creative ones, the next writing session will be tomorrow, the 6 May at my house again!

I was thinking we could start at 7:30 if people could make it - that way we'd still get to enjoy the sun and my lovely green garden! Bring some food if you like, I think I will prepare a salad like last time.

So, what do you say?! I hope many of you will come tomorrow, and that you will also bring loads of words with you... See you under the Brussels evening sun... :)

Ça va?

The internal postman

In average six out of ten civil servants greet him. Two out of ten look at him. Does it mean that he is roughly invisible? Let’s make a test. Let’s move him closer to the civil servant’s table, and let him stare at the face of the civil servant at close quarters with eyes wide open.

No. He is not invisible. The civil servant nervously glances at him and asks: ça va?

Ça va.

His life can be described with these two words: ça va.

Read the story


"I miss your grandmother" he says.
I look at his old face. His sand-coloured skin has become as thin as a parchment and I can spot the veins beneath it.
"Every time I wake up I still think that she would be here", he continues. "It's difficult when I understand that she is not just gone to make some tea".
"You've been married a very long time", I answer, not knowing what to say. This time he mentioned "your grandmother", which meant that he recognized me as being of his kin. He's been staring at me for a very long time. I can tell his brain is trying to remind him of someone he might have known before. He recognises my cousins because they look like their parents. Unfortunately for him my father and I are very different.
"We've been married sixty years" he replies. He looks at me with interrogative eyes and adds: "How old are you by the way?"
"I am twenty five", I answer.
He thinks very deeply before he proudly declares: "We were married more than twice the time that you've been living".
"It is a long time". I never know what to say to him. Usually I just talk about the same things all over again. He never remembers it anyway. I talk about the weather, I talk about my parents, I have to say who my father is and have to remind him that my father is his son. I came to see him once a week since he entered the hospital and he has no idea of who I am. He wouldn't notice if I stopped visiting. Sometimes I feel as if I was wasting my time, and yet I feel like a horrible person for not seeing him more often.
"How are you feeling today, Grandpa?"
"Old. My knee still hurts and I still can't walk".
"It is normal, you broke your knee a month ago", I answer.
"A month already? Yes, I suppose that at my age bruises don't heal as easily as before".
He thinks deeply again.
"When my knee will be better, I will be going home".
I know he won't, and actually, he knows it as well. He now needs constant medical assistance and my aunts have booked him a room in a senior institution. We all loved the family house, though. I have spent many summer holidays there as a child, playing with him, when he could still walk and laugh and remember my name. My grandfather was a very tall man when he was standing up. I was told that he used to be a handsome, career-driven person, yet very kind and excessively fond of his wife and children. He worked until his brain started to dislike the effects of age, then his memory began to unravel. He remained kind and very fond of everyone who was around him, though.
"Do you want to go for a walk?" I ask, which means that I am offering to push his wheelchair to the garden, and maybe to the park if he is feeling like it.
"No, I am fine", he says. "I don't know this garden".
Time is flying and nothing is being said. I know that in no time I will have to go and leave him to his loneliness. I have talked about every topic I could think of. Weather, family, daily routine stuff; all of it was covered. I eventually have to go.
My father calls me when I leave the hospital. "How is he?" he asks.
I say: "He is good."

Looking for the real thing

I normally don’t go anywhere near the Eiffel tower, or any of the other touristy places, but that day I felt like emptying my mind of fine herbs, innovative sauces and the smell of rabbit slowly cooking in a sweet Alsatian wine. The chive straws I use to decorate the mousse de canard were still blinding my sight, and my clothes smelled of fried olive oil. I needed to get out of the restaurant so badly; I hadn’t even dared telling my assistants. I just left.

Le poids rouge was situated in Montmartre; in one of the side streets that tourists rarely find, as the other streets around are more lively and colourful. The flowers never bloom as much on Rue Albert Rouge. The windows are darker, and the air feels slightly stickier. I walked to metro Abesses, and travelled across the Seine to Pasteur, just next to Montparnasse train station. I thought of my brother whom I had last seen there two months ago before he went back to London to his wife and two kids. He had needed I break; I think the week in Paris served him well. He seemed a bit more happy to be alive when we kissed goodbye on the platform. I think he’ll stay by Aida’s side in the end. She is a complicated woman, and having two small copies of her certainly does not simplify matters. But he’s a man of principles at the end of the day – once he has chosen his woman, he’ll stick to her.

By the time the metro reached Concorde, I had seen five women sit down across from me. Four of them had left so far. The fifth one was elderly, with grey hair tucked in under a blue plum shaped hat. Her wrinkled hands firmly gripped a fluffy white handbag, which reminded me of a lapdog my mother used to have when we were kids. The fifth woman did not leave me. I left her. I walked towards the sliding doors (that pinch you very hard if you do not pay attention) and in the corner of my eye I saw her caressing her handbag.

The change to line six was quick, and I arrived at Bir Hakeim 49 minutes after I had left the restaurant. I felt relieved. The afternoon was sunny, and the air was full of foreign languages expressing the beauty of an 81-story high iron construction. I went straight for the hotdog stand and ordered a French one with mustard but no ketchup. I enjoyed my lunch on a bench next to the stand, watching two stray dogs fighting over a left behind sausage (Paris is full of them). The terrier was about to win over the sausage dog, which seemed like a contradiction of terms. Poor dachshund, I thought.

My lunch was interrupted by a tourist looking for “Rue A. Rouge” next to metro Anvers, and my heart did a somersault. I studied him closely, trying to determine whether he was the type to look for an unknown fine dining restaurant in Montmartre. He had blond dreadlocks, an unzipped leather jacket and somewhat baggy pants. He was carrying a backpack the same size as his upper body. His eyes were curiously looking for any sign of recognition.
-Do you happen to know it, mademoiselle? He was red in the face, and his light t-shirt was slightly wet and glued to his chest.
-I come from there, I said. He looked at me; puzzled, waiting for me to continue with my sentence.
-I came from there, I corrected myself. He seemed even more confused, and put down his backpack on the ground. Including the sleeping bag, it reached all the way up to his waist. His eyes asked if he could join me on the bench, and I nodded silently. He seemed like a sweet guy, and my stomach filled me with hope. Maybe he prefers red beans over green ones as well? Maybe he too eats and eats and eats, but never quite manages to still his hunger? Maybe he too has just one piece missing from his puzzle…?
I never got to know. He left me to buy a hot dog, asking me if I could keep an eye on his backpack. I felt slightly irritated, but told him the French one is the best one. He returned with a normal hot dog with ketchup and mustard. I watched him take the first bite, and then he went into fits. He made gasping sounds and put out his tongue like an overheated dog. I passed him my water bottle and he thanked me with his green eyes. Funny, first I had thought they were blue; but now that the sun went behind a cloud, they looked light green.
-Too hot? I asked, and he nodded. His hands looked beautiful around my Evian water bottle. They were large and tanned, with clean short nails.

He was from Canada, travelling across Europe on his own. He had done Scandinavia, Germany, Holland and Belgium. Now he wanted to do Paris as well.
-I want to discover the real Paris, he explained. I don’t want to do the touristy things. On his 4th bite of the hot dog, he told me it felt like the mustard was coming out of his nose.
-It’s normal, I comforted him. It’s absolutely normal. He changed the topic. I wondered if he liked me. I turned a bit more towards him on the bench, and started twisting my hair around my right index finger.
-So… You were telling me that you came from Rue A. Rouge? Is it close to the Moulin Rouge?
-Yes and no… But I’m not really from there. I just work there. I sensed that he didn’t like being corrected, and he punished me by not asking any follow-up questions. I moved my right hand down my side in a sensual way, but he simply looked down in his guide book.
-Because there is this restaurant on that street… Le poids rouge. He pronounced it in perfect French, except that he put too much emphasis on the “poids”, which made it sound like he was referring to a shabby corner bar rather than a fine dining restaurant.
-I own it, I told him, and my chest felt enlarged. Oh. Oh! It had finally made it to the guide books! This was a special day.
-Wow! So, are you the pea? He asked with a twinkle in his eye. That’s awesome! In that case, I shall grant you the honour of my company tonight! They say in the guide book that there is nothing touristy about Le poids rouge, and that it is a good start to discover the real Paris… The way he pronounced the name of my restaurant was getting on my nerves.
-Le poids rouge, I corrected him; putting more emphasis on the ou-sound in rouge. Le poide rouge is a fine dining restaurant in one of the side least discovered side streets behind Sacre Coeur. Do you like mussels?
-I don’t know, he answered, and lifted his shoulders. Never had them!
-I just bought 2 kilos worth of mussels. Do you want to eat at my house tonight instead of the restaurant? I couldn’t believe my ears. I had just offered a complete stranger over for dinner! I didn’t even know his name. My heart was pounding, and I felt suddenly warm inside. He looked up at me, wiped some sweat off his nose and smiled.
-That’s a rather generous offer, mademoiselle… His sentence sailed up towards the blue sky, mixing with Japanese awestruck sighs about the tallest building in France.
-Amandine. I saved his words from flying away to unknown dimensions. Nice to meet you.
-Great, Amandine. I’m Gabriel. I don’t think I can say no to dinner at a professional chef’s house in Paris… It can’t get more real than that! He stood up from the bench, and started searching for something in his backpack.
-This is something small for you. He handed over a key chain in the shape of a red and white beaver. Under it was written “Roots”.
I had a date! A real Canadian date!

* * *

It was kind of weird. She was not bad, though not my definition of beauty by any stretch of imagination. She had long brown hair and her body was a bit too flat for my liking. I like them with curves, and preferably with a somewhat wider arse. I’m completely not into flat arses, but still. She was all right. I had come to Paris to escape from my ex back in Ottawa. I didn’t really want to think about her right anymore, because there was nothing else to think about. She had just left, and that was it. In a way, I think I’m better off without her.

I thought about buying flowers for Amandine, but couldn’t find a flower shop on the way to her house, so settled for chocolates instead. Carte d’Or. It sounded fancy enough; like a “golden opportunity” for something. I arrived at her house at twenty past 8 – just within the range of being fashionably late. I had made sure not to use any after shave after showering – I had read somewhere that women are more attracted to a man’s natural smell. So, here I was; au naturel, outside this real French girl’s house. I peaked into her mailbox and put my right ear towards the front door. I heard a kitchen machine working inside. I knocked five times, but she didn’t hear me. I wondered what she was wearing, and weather her arse would turn out to be as flat as I remembered. I rang the doorbell and the noise inside stopped. The front door flung open, and there she was; the most stunning girl in the neighbourhood. I felt warm inside, and put my left hand into the pocket of my brown corduroy trousers. They were of the loser type, and you can never be quite sure. I felt warm inside, as her small breasts welcomed me inside.

The house smelled of white wine and roasted nuts.
-I prepared an aperitif for us, she said; and offered him a martini glass with an olive stuck to the side. I tried to hide the fact that I don’t like olives by drinking very slowly. That way I was postponing the empty-glass-moment when the owner starts fiddling around nervously with it. I knew that it would look strange at that point not to eat the olive, so I avoided the situation all together. Amandine put a bowl of honey-brown pine-nuts in front of me, and told me “chin-chin”.
-This is the new trendy apero in Paris, she said. I didn’t know if she referred to the nuts or the drink, but I smiled politely. Her breasts looked enormous tonight compared to this afternoon, and I felt that she really wasn’t such a bad girl. She had slim, long legs and a long neck, which kind of made up for the lack of curves.

She served me “moules à la gruyere” and real "crab claws, served on a bed of citronella leaves and asparagus mousse”. It was really nice, and I enjoyed her company. When she laughed, she reminded me of a chimpanzee I had seen last night on TV. She was cute though, I realised. Her nose and ears were small, and her waist was slim. While she was telling me about the hidden areas in the world capital of romance, I got my nerves up and reached over to her neck and touched her.
-I think I’m finding the real Paris… I told her. She laughed nervously, but you could tell she was enjoying the attention. I lifted up her hand and kissed it lightly. She giggled.
-You’re a gentleman! Her English was surprisingly good, and she could keep up a conversation without too much difficulty. I wanted to kiss this real Parisian, but she was too involved in explaining about how she had prepared the raspberry flavoured crème brulée. I don’t eat desserts normally, but this was kind of good. And anyway, I didn’t want to upset her. I thought of the olive still left on the side of my Martini glass. Luckily her back was too it, so she could not possibly have seen it from her side of the table. I’m doing well, I thought to myself. I’m doing really well here in Paris.

* * *

After two bottles of Pinot Blanc, she told him that it was getting late. He played stupid, and told her how much he has enjoyed this first taste of beautiful Paris. She insisted politely that she had to work tomorrow, and forced him thus with gentle but firm female savoir-faire to get up from his comfortable seat in her sofa-bed. He knew it could be turned into a bed, because his parents had a similar looking one back in Mississauga.
-Will I see you again? He asked; searching for her eyes. I want to buy you dinner as thanks for tonight. It was awesome. I leave to London on Tuesday, so how about tomorrow?
She took longer than usual to answer, and the air was thick with crab fumes and lost dreams.
-That would be nice, Amandine said with a smile that was just about genuine. She knew this wasn’t the real thing, and that tomorrow she would have to return to her maigret de canard and sauce made with either strawberries or oranges – whichever was in season. They said bye and he walked into the early summer night, knowing that the humidity of the early summer night would instantly make his nose sweat. The Eiffel tower was ivory coloured in the sunset; prepared to be embraced by yet another long and lonely night.

Monica Westerén, 05.05.2008